Parshat Matot-Masei: Try Your Best – Then Pray for Luck

Parshat Matot-Masei: Try Your Best – Then Pray for Luck

We live in a world that floods us with information and perspectives, making it possible for us to prepare ourselves for almost anything.  I remember planning my schedule around unknown driving times, hoping traffic would be on my side so I wouldn’t be late for anything and trigger a cascade of lateness for the rest of my day. GPS technology appeared, and it quickly moved from providing me with maps to providing me with real-time traffic updates.  My phone’s GPS now lets me know when to leave my house and arrive at my destination on time in the future, just by inputting the date and time I plan to drive.  If there should be a sudden mishap on the road, my GPS will reroute me around it to fulfill the singular purpose of getting me there on time.  Luck has been taken out of the equation.

A few years ago I was talking to a woman who lives in Alaska and she told me a friend of hers had a car with GPS.  She said it was cute but useless.  I asked her why it was useless (thinking it might be a signal problem) and she told me that most of the year the roads are buried under snow and ice so what difference does it make if the GPS tells you which road to take.  She said that starting in grade school they’re taught how to survive in sudden bad weather and then hope that luck is on their side.  In her world, technology is cute but training and luck carry the day.

The very notion of luck implies that success or failure are determined by some outside force, usually random.  It seems to be a concept foreign to Judaism, where things in our lives speak of our intentions as filtered through our actions.  In fact, the way we use the word luck in English has no counterpart in Hebrew.  Rather than wishing someone good luck, in Hebrew we would say ‘behatzlacha’, which means ‘with success’.  It is a statement of outcome, unlike luck, which is a statement of process.

So, what do we do with a Jewish calendar that implies that some months are lucky and some months are not?  The Talmud tells us that the month of Adar is a lucky month for the Jewish people.  It is the month when we celebrate Purim, and although Haman drew lots to decide when to attack the Jews, the lot came out on our lucky month, so we were advantaged at a time when we faced a planned genocide.  According to our understanding, God’s protection was hidden in the fact that the lottery resulted in Adar.

Unfortunately, the opposite is true for the month of Av.  It is considered to be the unlucky month for the Jewish people.  It is the month of the destruction of our ancient Temples, the month of expulsions, the month in which Aaron died, the month when things align negatively.  

This Shabbat is when we mark the beginning of the month of Av.

Where are these ideas of luck coming from?  In this week’s Torah reading, parshat Matot-Masei, the people are told how to allocate portions of land to the tribes once they all enter Israel.  First, everyone is told that land portions should be designated by the size of each tribe — larger tribes get more land.  Interestingly, the Torah then says that each tribe will receive its land allocation by drawing lots.  The commentaries immediately question which one it is.  A rational reckoning would say tribal size corresponds with land size.  Conducting lots would say that it’s the luck of the draw, so everyone has equal opportunities to a windfall. 

I view it as a beautiful way to remind us that while we try to approach everything around us with cold, rational logic, we should always be humble enough to accept that some things lie beyond us.  The Zohar tells us that everything depends on a bit of luck from above.  In fact, the word ‘mazel’ (as in Mazel Tov) means ‘drippings from above’.  The Sages told us that God wove inclinations into the fibers of creation.  Some months will incline toward the positive while others will not.  

We also know that each month in the Jewish calendar has an animal paired to it.  The month of Av has a lion — it represents the predatory aspects of a lion and its ability to destroy.  But we also know that the lion is the animal connected with the ancient tribe of Judah.  There it represents strong leadership and ultimate redemption.  Things in creation may incline a certain way, but the world is a dynamic place of opportunity and change.  The two lions have opportunities to engage, and it can make us stronger.

As Av begins, and we read of land assignments and lotteries in the Torah, we remind ourselves that for a few weeks we plant our feet strongly on the ground and search for the opportunities to improve what we see around us.  With a bit of luck on our side, negatives can become positives.

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Parshat Emor: Always a Voice, Never a Prophet

Parshat Emor: Always a Voice, Never a Prophet

I had an interesting conversation at our online coffee this week about prophecy.  Judaism no longer believes in prophecy.  Not that it doesn’t exist, but that it doesn’t work.  The goal of the prophetic era was to have people change their behaviours and improve.  Prophecy ended because, it seems, no one ever wanted to repent or change their ways.  We don’t like being told we’re doing it wrong, and we especially don’t like someone who thinks they’re speaking for God telling us we’re doing it wrong.  Even if we were to admit we don’t get everything perfect, and so, perhaps, we’re doing things wrong, we don’t want someone else to tell us how to do it better.  Literally put, prophecy is God, the Parent, constantly looking over your shoulder and telling you how wrong you are, how you’ve failed, and how you should fix your life.  And while truth is on the side of the prophet, none of us want to hear it.  

I remember transitional moments in my life, when I got married, when I had kids, when I had to figure out how to raise them… all those moments with my parents’ voices in my head.  The recurring phrase I kept hearing was ‘one day you’ll know what I mean’, it’s the hauntingly truthful phrase we all encounter at some point.  With age, we all come to realize how our parents were probably right most of the time…but none of us want to live in that realization every moment.  Prophecy can’t possibly work.

Interestingly, the Torah spends very little time talking to us about prophecy and much more time talking to us about accountability.  The Torah is not interested in how we judge each other as failures, it’s more interested in how we can redirect our mistakes.  I am accountable to look at myself honestly, acknowledge the mistakes, correct them, and try better next time — knowing I will stand again in this cycle of error and correction, as I make my next mistake — I’m only human after all. 

When we all stand together in that system of values and reflection, we stand as a people.  When some of us consider ourselves privileged, closer to God, hearing the Divine Voice telling us Torah speaks exclusively to them in the ways only they can hear, that’s when we are told to respond and push back.

In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Emor, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, the priestly class, on how they should behave.  Most of the laws are particular to them and the lives they must lead as ritual civil servants.  That’s not the part that’s unusual.  The commentaries raise the question about why they are being forbidden to do the things everyone else is forbidden to do?  Why do those laws have to be repeated here?

The priests are forbidden to create bald spots on their heads out of sorrow.  But earlier in the Torah we were all forbidden to create these bald spots during mourning.  The priests are told not to gouge their flesh or cut themselves as a show of grief — something we were all forbidden to do. Why the repetition?  

The Torah is addressing the danger of defining a group within the people as facilitators of the holy.  The risk is the perception of holy privilege; the risk is the conclusion that the same rules that apply to everyone, somehow don’t apply to them.  The Torah shuts the door to that thinking before the door can open.

In the future, Israel will demand that the prophet, Samuel, anoint a king for us.  God tells Samuel to make sure the king knows that he is subject to the same laws of Torah to which Israel is subject. Close the door of privilege before it opens.

Today, the whole world is sitting vulnerable to Covid 19, the deadly, mutating virus we are yet to subdue. Judaism has told us, more times than we care to remember, that we are commanded to act as a people, secure the health and safety of ourselves and those around us. Our Jewish values and Jewish law never waiver on this.  And yet, we still know of Jewish places that think the laws against gatherings, and staying at home to keep everyone safe, somehow don’t apply to them. The risk of feeling privileged is not unusual, but having Jewish leaders who support that view, and do not step forward to close that door, is baffling.

Today, Lag BaOmer, is a day for us to celebrate Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  A sage from the second century who opened the world of Jewish mysticism for us and offered us the ‘keys to the kingdom’.  A man who endured and lived in the extremes of creation to finally emerge into the world by understanding the delicate balance of it all.  A brilliant teacher who told his students that if they are to seek him out, as he protects himself in a cave, they are  only to seek him out by disguising themselves from the enemy patrols — they are to only seek him if they too can stay safe. 

Unfortunately, there are groups of people within the Jewish community throughout the world who feel that their particular school can remain open while other schools must close, or their synagogue can gather in numbers while other synagogues must not. The Jewish response to these groups is often to remain silent for fear of speaking words of judgment.  They are being viewed as the ‘other’ groups. But, we stand as one people, regardless of whether or not we agree with individual choices. We must not forget that if we are silent when we should be protecting each other, we are also deaf to the words of Torah.  

Objecting to Jewish values that are ignored, and speaking up to secure the safety of others, is not a moment of prophecy, because we know prophecy won’t work.  We are one people and we are reflected in each other.  Speaking out against community members who feel entitled is not prophecy, it’s peoplehood.

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Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Somewhere, Far, Far Away

Parshat Acharei Mot – Kedoshim: Somewhere, Far, Far Away

Recently, I heard a funny reality about anyone who returns home from the International Space Station.  Apparently, people who are there develop new habits for mundane life.  They spend so much time there that the earth habits don’t work for them anymore.  For example, when they finish using something, they will simply let go of it.  It’s the correct thing to do in space, in a zero gravity environment.  The pen you’re using will simply suspend in front of you, and you can grab it again when you need it.  Putting anything away involves locking it down, not placing it down.   It makes perfect sense on the ISS, but fails miserably back on Earth.  Apparently, once home, the habit persists, and astronauts simply let go of things after they use them, only to remember, too late, that the thing will now fall and break.  It’s a step back in time to that moment when, as toddlers, we all spent hours dropping cutlery off the table in order to watch it fall.  Clearly, we were testing whether it would fall this time again.  Past behaviour does not necessarily indicate present behaviour so, as toddlers, we’re not learning about gravity, we’re learning to trust gravity.  

The next step in our understanding of the world, is to move from trusting the laws of nature around us, to learning how our strength can cause interactions within the world itself.  Once we trust gravity, we begin to play the ‘roll the ball to me’ game.  We start to understand that our strength can move the ball through space, so how strongly do I have to push the ball to get it to move?  How much stronger do I have to push it so it moves out of my reach, and how much strength do I need to get it to move all the way to you.  It all starts because I trust to let something go and watch if it hangs around.

This week, there are two Torah readings: Acharei Mot, and Kedoshim.  Within the readings is a description of letting go of something very important.  It is what modern western culture calls ‘the scapegoat’. 

Webster’s Dictionary defines a scapegoat as something that “bears the blame for others”.  In other words, I need to blame someone for something, and because I don’t know who to blame (or can’t find them), I’ll randomly choose someone else to blame, and then punish them as if they really did it.  It serves my need to lay blame and accountability on…anything at all, as long as it’s not me.  It has nothing to do with justice or rationale, it is not a moment of balance or closure, it simply allows me to designate blame so I feel vindicated and powerful.  That is how it has manifested through human history.  That is not what the Torah is describing.

The Torah talks of a ritual performed by the High Priest.  Two goats are chosen at random.  By drawing lots, the priest will determine which one is designated for holy ritual and which one is to be cast away.  The goat for holy ritual will be slaughtered while the one designated to be cast away will symbolically bear all the sins and negative emotions of the community.  It will then be sent into the wilderness.  From the goat’s perspective it’s quite simple: the ‘holy’ one dies and the ‘scapegoat’ is set free.  Let’s guess which one we’d prefer to be.

The purpose of the scapegoat is not to find something to blame, it’s to find a mechanism that rids me of all the things that haunt me.  It is sent into the wilderness, looking like every other goat, so that no one could ever find it, punish it, or be impacted by it.  Everything inside me that could hurt me, or hurt others, has now found its way outside of me, and is put where it can’t find root, grow, or trigger others.  It becomes powerless and neutral.

Both of these goats give me elevated expression.  One participates in the ancient language of sacrifice, and will end by feeding me, my family and my community.  The other goat teaches me to find a mechanism where my past mistakes, and my potentially destructive emotions, can find a release and do no harm.  The Torah isn’t insisting we find goats, it’s insisting we find mechanisms.

In the end, we’ve all returned from the International Space Station and we can choose whether we want every mistake we’ve ever made to hang around us or not.  Once we know we don’t want to be haunted with these things, we move to trusting there is a mechanism that works for us, and exploring how much strength we need to move these things away from us, far enough away where they can’t ever hurt anyone.  I not only choose how much strength I need to roll the ball away from me, I must also choose if I’ve aimed it at anyone.

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell, Didn’t Know

Parshat Tazria-Metzora: Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell, Didn’t Know

The other day, I overheard a conversation one of my daughters was having with her friend online.  She mentioned that another close friend of theirs (let’s call her Jane) had her baby and all was well.  I heard the friend shout to her husband that the baby came and everyone’s fine.  ‘What baby?’ asked her husband.  ‘Jane’s baby’, answered the friend.  ‘Jane was pregnant!!?’ asked the husband, ‘why didn’t you tell me??’  The wife gave the answer we’ve all heard to such questions: ‘you didn’t ask.’

Personally, I’ve had occasions of speaking with my mother who updates me on some of my siblings.  There have been moments when I hear surprising things.  Not surprising because they’re odd or unusual, surprising because I speak with my siblings often and they hadn’t told me.  Many a time, I’ve ended up calling that sibling and asking: ‘remember yesterday when I asked you ‘what’s new?’ What did you think I meant?’

And then there’s the information we don’t share because we don’t want to worry the other person, especially these days.  I have bad allergies every year.  This year, it triggered my taking Covid tests to make sure the symptoms are truly only allergies.  Between you and me, when I speak with my mother and she asks me how I’m doing, I’m not disclosing every cough, sniffly nose and sneeze because she will worry (as would I if my child told me that), and the days are challenging as it is.  I don’t want to cause a worry in someone else with something that is not worrying me.  And so, I decide for them how much information to disclose because I am trying to protect them.  It works with everyone except my mother.  I have now accepted that she will worry if I don’t tell her all the details, so mothers deserve health disclosures from their children — fair is fair.

But now we live in a world that has brought complex questions about what we can ask someone and what we should expect them to disclose.  A recent news story reported that a man who was central to a dating show involving women and the giving of roses has now publicly acknowledged that he’s gay.  I wasn’t sure why this was news.  I wondered if somehow something hadn’t been disclosed appropriately, but then I realized those kinds of personal questions are private and need not be asked or answered.  Once again, I’m left to wonder at the newsworthiness of that disclosure, which brought me to thinking about the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy introduced by the US military concerning the sexual orientation of soldiers.

The policy outlined that anyone could join the US military without being asked about their sexual orientation and they, likewise, had to agree not to ‘tell’, not to disclose it without being asked.  Everyone entered ‘an agreement of ignorance’, and now the topic of discrimination based on sexual orientation simply didn’t exist.  I find it an interesting transitional moment of not acknowledging there’s a discrimination problem so we can all avoid dealing with it.   The policy no longer exists.

In Canada, there is currently a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy when it comes to anyone accessing government medical assistance.  Don’t ask anyone what their immigration status is, they are under no obligation to tell, and in that way any illegal immigrants will not be afraid to seek help for fear of deportation.  In other words, my goal is to protect the person so they can stay safe and healthy. 

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Tazria-Metzora, discusses anomalous health issues that arise.  Both explainable and mysterious physical conditions, rashes, sores, all the details of leprosy are explored and discussed.  It’s a complex reading of ritual, quarantine and resolution.  Yet, one of the most profound moments occurs before any of the medical information.  The Torah says that when you see something on your body that you haven’t seen before, you must now go and ask an expert.  It isn’t your choice.  

In Judaism, matters of personal spirituality and belief are private, they are not for public discussion.  Whether or not I believe in God, what are my personal spiritual challenges, these are in the ‘don’t ask’ category and it’s up to me ‘to tell’, if I so choose.  But when it comes to my physical concerns, I must seek answers to protect myself and to protect others.

It seems like such an obvious statement, but oftentimes people bring this policy into their health moments.  On the one hand, teachers have shared that some parents use Tylenol to disguise their child’s questionable symptoms during a pandemic, and on the other hand, we create health blind spots we think help others.  Many of us will neglect our own health because we are caring for others, or we don’t want to worry them, or we ourselves prefer not to know.  

The Torah has removed our health from the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ possibility.  The phrase that repeats most often in these chapters is ‘and he must go and seek’.

It is becoming our norm in this moment in time for us to sit in our homes and wait for the information to be brought to us.  The news, the internet, social media, Facebook, all build our understanding that we need not look for information, everything we could ever ask is brought right to us.  The Torah reminds us that sometimes the most important information we could ever need to know will only unlock when we remember to ask the question.

Parshat Shemini: It Needs a Capital, a Symbol & a Number

Parshat Shemini: It Needs a Capital, a Symbol & a Number

The other day, an elderly friend of mine asked for some help with her technology.  She was trying to access an online shopping account one of her kids set up for her a while back but she couldn’t log into the account.  We spent a fair bit of time circling around the question of what her username might be.  We tried her email address –didn’t work.  I asked if there were other email addresses around the time the account was set up –we tried those –didn’t work.  We tried variations of her name: first name and last name, first name with a ‘dot’ and then the last name, first initial with the last name, first initial with a ‘dot’ and then the last name…we got nowhere.

I asked if she tried asking her adult child (the one who set up the account) what the logins are.  Yes, she said, but he’s working and won’t get back to her until that evening.  So we headed to nicknames, grandparent nicknames, pet names, street names, old Yiddish words –nothing worked.  I began to think about what was going to happen when we had to try a hundred passwords, and a cold sweat formed on my brow.  Clearly, even ten wrong password attempts would lock us out of her account, and it would then open an entirely different online nightmare of getting it unlocked.  I strongly suggested we quit while there was no damage done, and wait for nightfall, when her son could give us the logins.

The next day I found out that my friend’s son had set up the account in his own name, his personal email, with a password he created.  I couldn’t quite understand why it wasn’t just considered his account.  In other words, why is it considered his mother’s account if he set it up, designated access logins, and kept watch and control over the account.  When I mentioned this to one of my kids, they said it sounds like the son is parenting his parent –the phrase Judaism doesn’t know what to do with.

Parenting one’s parent is a catch phrase that showed up a number of years ago to describe what popular western culture has designated as the challenge of the ‘sandwich generation’.  Those people who are sandwiched between aging parents above them, and growing or adult children below them.  They are the cream in the middle of the generational oreo cookie and they feel squeezed.  The assumption is that their elderly parents have somehow begun to age backwards, and are now so young they require active parenting.  

Judaism doesn’t have a problem with acknowledging that as we grow old, we may need more care.  In fact, the commandment to honour our parents continues into our parents’ senior years.  It extends over the lifetime of the child, not the parent.  In other words, even if someone’s parents have passed away, the commandment to honour their memory continues as long as the child is alive.  As an elderly person may need increased care, Judaism would put this increase in the ongoing category of respecting and honouring our parents.  Jewishly, the problem isn’t that more care is required, the problem is that we’re calling it parenting.

We can’t possibly parent our parents.  The moment we accept that perspective, we take our eyes off them as our primary and foundational teachers.  They continue to teach us our entire lives, whether they are physically with us or not.  Our respect for them, and view of them in that parenting/teaching role is never mitigated by age, wellness or acuity.  Helping someone is not defined as parenting.

When our parents decide to pass a torch to us (Seders at our house, Friday night dinners prepared in our homes…), it is their choice.  If we feel they are working too hard on some things, we can offer to share the load, but could we take the torch and shoulder the burden without their asking?  Can we simply take the torch, for their own good?

This week’s Torah portion, parshat Shemini, is rich with ritual, ceremony, grandeur, and holiness.  But part way through, no one reading it cares anymore because there’s a shocking and horrific moment when two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed for bringing “foreign fire” to a sacrifice.  Aaron is so dumbstruck he is paralyzed.  Thousands of years later, we read it and we’re shocked and horrified again.  What could be so unspeakable about “foreign fire”?

Many of the commentaries try to resolve this huge theological question, but we never get one answer that satisfies.  In the midst of this spiritual turmoil of understanding, a commentator named Abarbanel focuses us on the specific sacrifice these sons of Aaron were involved with  –it was the sacrifice only Aaron was supposed to bring.  Now our minds reel.

Not long before these events, Moses was on Mount Sinai and Aaron was leading the people at the bottom of the mountain.  When Moses came down, he saw the golden calf and Israel worshiping it.  When he asked Aaron what happened, Aaron said he didn’t know what happened, he threw gold and silver into a fire and out came the image of a calf so he built it.  It is precisely the definition of what we would consider ‘foreign fire’.  It’s not the torch Aaron ever intended to pass to his sons, but it’s the torch they took.

The sacrifice Nadav and Avihu began to make was the sacrifice only the High Priest could do.  In some way, they believed they should rise to the authority of their father and take his place.  He hadn’t asked for help, and their initiative was misplaced, disrespectful, even offensive.  The backlash is severe, and still troubles us today.

Our parents hold many torches throughout their lives.  Some of these torches are intended for us, but not all of them are headed our way.  One of our strongest Jewish values is to recognize that our parents are always unique in our lives, and they remain unique to us throughout our entire lives.  Thinking we can parent our parents is a misleading concept that will likely result in our overstepping.  Choosing to recognize that as our parents may need more from us, they are actually teaching us that we could always find more within ourselves, even when we thought we couldn’t.  Indeed, we are sandwiched in that case, since our children are always watching us, and we are now showing them that they too have strength within them, quietly waiting for if they need it.  

Preserved that way, the generations stay as they should, while each generation challenges the one to come, and in that way secures our future.  

As an aside, I have begun to keep an old address book of mine which I’ve designated only for keeping an alphabetical, written record of my usernames and passwords.  My kids think it’s cute, one of them used the word ‘vintage’.  I’ll wait patiently for the day I know they’ll figure it out.

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Parshat Vayikrah: Is This the Party With Whom I Am Speaking?

Parshat Vayikrah: Is This the Party With Whom I Am Speaking?

At this moment in time, so many of us rely on our electronics — specifically on our phones.  I didn’t grow up with cell phones, I grew up with handsets that fit into cradles that were plugged into walls.  The telephone would sit on a table, or was somehow screwed onto a wall.  There was a permanence to a telephone.  The idea of ripping it off the wall and putting it in your pocket wasn’t even science fiction, it was science ridiculous.

I can’t remember the very first time I answered a phone.  I do remember not knowing that if you put the handset back in its cradle it hangs up on the other person.  I remember being shown to put the handset on the table next to the cradle, and then go find the person asked for on the phone.  I don’t remember when I switched from finding the person in the house to holding the handset and shouting their name as loud as I could.  Phone etiquette has come a long way.

When I was in high school, I had a summer job as a receptionist in a law firm.  I was told to always wear skirts, arrive early, make the coffee, and manage a switchboard with ten incoming lines that funneled to ten different people.  It was made clear that every call must be answered, no one should receive a ‘busy’ signal.  The moment the office opened, all ten lines rang immediately and didn’t let up.  By then, phones had advanced from ‘ringing’ to ‘burbling’.  I learned to answer all of them by putting everyone on hold and then try to transfer the calls one by one.  Half the time the switchboard was busy with lawyers internally transferring the calls to the correct person after I guessed at someone’s extension.  I didn’t make it all the way through the summer, which was a blessing since I began hearing the phone burbling in my sleep.  

Eventually we arrive at a place where no one could ever receive a ‘busy’ signal, since every call is answered, or forwarded, or given to a message link, or we listen to music endlessly…  The message is clear, no one is ever unavailable.

Because we will always be reached by the telephone that moved from our walls to our pockets, we get to choose what sound we will hear — our ringtones.  If my electronic device can reach me whenever it seems to want to, then I get to choose how annoying that sound will be.  Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a double edged sword.  Gone is the jarring, fast paced ringing, and in comes my favourite song clip.  Unfortunately, I can’t count the number of calls I’ve missed because I’m singing with my ring tone or I’m dancing over to get my phone.  Now I need a special ringtone for people whose calls I never want to miss.  Soon I’ll need a special file on my phone that reminds me which person is connected to which ringtone because my phone has become the house that Jack built.

And I haven’t even touched on the fact that my computer is now accepting ‘Zoom’ calls.

I’m fascinated that all of these nuances of reaching out to each other is captured in the first verses of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayikrah.  It is the beginning of the book of Leviticus, though the Hebrew name for the book means ‘And He Called’.  It begins with God calling Moses.  All the commentaries discuss why that is a special moment, since God talks to Moses all the time, but they note that this isn’t God speaking, this is God calling.  There are various ways we are told that God reaches out to Moses: calling (vayikrah), talking (vayidaber), saying (vayomer) — they’re not synonyms.

When God ‘talks’ with Moses, it is an invitation for dialogue, when God ‘says’ something, it is instructional, but what happens when God ‘calls’?  The commentaries explain that God has presented a model to us that we should learn to use with each other. God ‘calls’ Moses by name,  and from that we learn that when we reach out to initiate contact with someone, we should address them by name.  The conversation may proceed into one of ‘speaking’ or ‘telling’ but that doesn’t change the initial reaching out.

As the verses progress, God has immediately detailed the beginnings of the laws of sacrifice.  In other words, a part of the Torah we no longer do, haven’t done for thousands of years and don’t anticipate ever doing again.  In fact, the English title, Leviticus, reflects that most of the book is dedicated to the laws of the Levites — the sacrificial laws.  But, the word ‘sacrifice’ is an English word that has no Hebrew equivalent.  In Hebrew, in the Torah, the word is ‘korban’, which comes from the word ‘nearness’.  The word ‘sacrifice’ should actually be translated as ‘a drawing near offering’.  Moses is to teach Israel how to draw near to God, and it involves reaching out for a moment of connection.  Interestingly, the verses are set up to say that God reaches out to someone, specifically someone, in a way that speaks to them.  They may choose to reach back and draw near.  Now the book of Leviticus is timeless.

One medieval commentary says that ‘calling to’ means only that person will hear it.  In other words, Aaron is probably standing right next to Moses but he can’t hear the conversation.  It’s the equivalent of a biblical phone call.

In our world today, we are still challenged with not being able to sit together in person, not being able to hug each other, and Pesach is fast approaching.  Within the first verses of our Torah reading, we are reminded that we never stop reaching out to each other, we learn to personalize it with a name, and make it relevant to the person we’re connecting with.  God clearly told Moses that when you reach out to connect with someone, chances are they may reach back.  That is the open door we can all step through, and build from there.  The laws in this book also include how to build a society that sits on values of connection, community, fairness and equal rights.  It all starts with reaching out and inviting the response. Today, that could be as seemingly simple as a phone call.

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: It Matters If It’s One Pocket or the Other

Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: It Matters If It’s One Pocket or the Other

I was thinking recently about pockets.  As every woman knows, we shouldn’t assume our clothes come with pockets.  We definitely assume that men’s clothes come with pockets.  Anyone in the United States knows that a woman could carry a pocketbook to put all her things in, but in Canada it would be called a purse.  At least a ‘pocketbook’ acknowledges the missing pockets in her clothing.  Recently, a new mother told me that her newborn son has pants with pockets, but the same pants on the newborn girl side has no pockets.  She didn’t understand what the newborn boy would put in his pockets so she concluded it must be ‘pocket training’ for all the male clothing in his future — baby girls should learn to navigate without pockets, it’s never too soon.

When we start thinking about pockets, it is inevitable that we’ll think about the things we put in them.  I can only put material things in my pockets, tangible objects.  No memories, no perspectives or philosophies will ever be in my pockets.  But, from a Jewish point of view, not all material things are created equal.

Most of us have spent this last year primarily in our homes.  We’re surrounded by our things, and those things will speak to us of our memories.  Where did I get that thing?  Do I actually even like it?  Maybe it’s time to donate it and reduce the stuff that’s around me.  But then we inevitably come across something we would never part with.  When we find that something, it’s usually not the monetary value of it that strikes us, it’s more often going to be a memory it triggers.  I recently came across a nightgown my grandmother gave me when I was little.  It’s not a little girl nightgown, it was actually her nightgown and I remember it being huge on me.  I loved it because it was soft, it smelled like her and it was so big I could tuck my feet up into it and feel surrounded by her.  I told her I loved that nightgown and she gave it to me.  Today it’s quite thin and I would be afraid to put it on because I don’t want to damage it, so perish the thought that I would ever wear it, but I will never give it up.  When I look at it, I think of my grandmother but even more, I think that I now have grandchildren and so I look at that nightgown and my thoughts move forward, not backward.  That nightgown will be seen with the eyes of five generations of one family.  To me, I look at that nightgown and I see a blessing.

In Judaism, materialism speaks to us in many ways.  There is certainly the utility of something, how it serves us, how it benefits its user.  Then there is the meaning of the object, how it triggers us, how it inspires us.

All of these thoughts intersected for me when I read what seemed like an insignificant part of this week’s Torah portion, parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei.  Israel is ready to build the Tabernacle, the place of holiness and ritual.  God tells Moses that everyone of a ‘giving heart’ should offer fine and beautiful linens, precious metals and jewels so those of a ‘knowing heart’ can fashion holy objects.  While it lists all the beautiful and precious objects, it neglects to remind everyone where all these objects came from.  

Anything of any value that the Israelites have is something they got in Egypt.  Before leaving, the Israelites were told to ask their Egyptian neighbours for finery and goods.  It was understood that nothing would ever be returned.  It is interpreted as Egypt paying the slaves for all the work they were forced to do, and it would close the door on any future claims.  It is a reparation settlement.

God has now suggested to them that they offer those very goods toward creating a place of holiness, expression and community.  It is not the material wealth that is crucial, it is the history that attaches to those objects.  The nature of reparations goes to the very meaning of the word: to repair.  It is not compensation, and it is not an assessed amount based on hours worked or pain suffered.  To repair an injury, to heal a transformative pain, doesn’t come down to how much money is paid, it comes down to what happens to that money.

The Torah has created the scenario of two pockets.  The material things I earn will go into one pocket, and I will be commanded to give some to charity, provide for my family and enjoy the world.  That money is for utility.  My other pocket is reserved for the material things that have meaning to me.  It is my choice whether I keep it, gift it, cherish it or pack it away.  This week, the Torah suggested that I could use my reparations (those material gestures of repair and healing) to create larger places of holiness and community.  Offering a reparation, and accepting one, creates an agreement that both sides are committed to healing.  The materialism of that moment, the actual monetary amount, pales in comparison to the turning point two people reach when they agree to move forward and repair.

I’m touched by the irony that results: ancient Jewish holy objects are made from the riches of Egypt.  But God does not command anyone to use their reparations to contribute to a greater cause, that can’t be commanded. Transforming reparations, moving them from one pocket to the other, now that requires a giving heart that joins with a knowing heart.

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Parshat Ki Tisa: Don’t Count Me In

Parshat Ki Tisa: Don’t Count Me In

It’s very unusual, within the Jewish people, to find someone whose name has a number after it.  I mean, we won’t often meet someone named Moishe Cohen III (the third), or Moishe Cohen Jr, or Senior, since that would indicate they were the first or the second.  I can understand that the numbering of generations tradition never attached to women, since until recently, women would change their names when they married, and would then lose their named place in the lineage of their birth.  Putting aside that many women no longer change their names, it doesn’t answer why that tradition never began on the male side of Jewish families.

Part of the reason might be the evil eye.  In Ashkenazi traditions, you don’t name a baby after a living person in the family, especially someone elderly.  God forbid, the evil eye or an angel of misfortune is looking for the elderly person to demand recompense for a sin, but now mistakenly thinks the baby is that person because of the duplicated names.  No new parent wants to risk angelic confusion over names.  Not to mention that the evil eye may notice multiple generations existing within one family, and then (God forbid) turn its attention toward that family.  The only way to name a baby that way is to accept that every time you call that child you will have to spit, in order to ward off all evil forces.  Easier to head to the dead relatives.

We use our spiritually protective arsenal when we have to mention people and numbers.  We spit, we say ‘kinahora’ (Yiddish for ‘against the evil eye’) or ‘bli ayin harah’ (Hebrew for ‘without [inviting] an evil eye), or we quickly wipe our brow, palm out, so we’ve created a ‘hamsa’ (the protective symbol of the Hand of God)  — your choice.

In traditional minyanim, the person leading the service will not count the people to see if there are ten.  Instead, a particular Psalm verse is recited that contains ten words.  Each person in the room gets one word from the Psalm.  We need to know if there are ten people present but we won’t count them.

In my family, when a family meal is a buffet, all our folding chairs are opened and most of the dishes will come out.  Each person can help themselves and augment if needed.  For a sit down meal, the person setting the table assigns a name to each spot visually.  We try not to count people.

This cultural sensitivity about people and numbers then enters the category ‘once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it’.  Mentioning someone’s age, even  your own, could be inviting spiritual attention nobody wants. 

Years ago, I finished a public lecture and was approached with questions from the audience afterward.  These questions could sometimes become quite inappropriate, and I would always be caught off guard when that happened.  One time, someone asked me how old I was.  I hesitated for a moment, not because I’m embarrassed by my age, only because I have been asked to define myself by a number.  I answered that I was in my 40s and the man smiled and said “Oh, ok, I see, ‘in my 40s.’”  The rest of the evening I felt like finding that man and explaining that I’m happy to tell him my exact age, if he’s ok that I then spit toward him.  If that makes him uncomfortable, I’d be ok if he took upon himself the role of spitter as long as it didn’t direct toward me.  My husband said I was obsessing…

Why are we so sensitive about people and numbers?

We come by it quite honestly, since the Torah tells us not to count people.  In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Ki Tisa, the text begins by telling Moses that in order to take a census of the people, he must instruct everyone to bring half a shekel.  Gather the money, count the money and you’ll know how many people there are but don’t count the people themselves.  In fact, the verse continues by saying that we don’t count people “so that you won’t have a plague because you counted them.”  It’s not an insignificant statement.

Of course, the question would be why such a shocking warning about something that seems so minor?  A word like ‘plague’ is not a word to be trifled with.

The Torah itself never literally mentions an evil eye, so could there be another reason behind the prohibition?  Interestingly, there’s a word in Hebrew that repeats several times in this verse but doesn’t usually get translated accurately.  In English, the verse will read ‘when you take a census’ or ‘when you count’, but the word in Hebrew is ‘pakad’, which means ‘remember’.  It is used repeatedly with our matriarchs when God ‘remembers’ their prayers and they conceive babies.  It is not understood as a memory issue, since God is not forgetful, it is mostly understood by the commentaries as ‘active memory’, meaning it moves higher in the list of attention and response.  It is used to express an elevation of the person and their uniqueness.

When we understand the meaning of ‘pakad’, we go back to our verse about the census, and now the meaning speaks to us.  God has told Moses to teach all of Israel that people are to be elevated in their uniqueness, and never reduced to numbers.  When we take away the individuality of a person, and we replace them with a number, nothing good can possibly result.  Expect a ‘plague’.

Jewish history has tragically taught us that one of the crucial steps that allow atrocities in our world is to dehumanize someone — take away a name and assign a number.  It’s not just about counting people, it only starts there.  Why would someone listening to me speak want to know how old I am?  It is my ideas I am expressing, not my age.  When we apply for a job, we are no longer allowed to ask how old someone is because discrimination by age is too easy.  An employer can assume that an older person is tired and won’t have the energy for a new job or may soon retire.  The assumption completely ignores that many retired people enter a renaissance period and reinvent themselves with the motivation and vigour needed for a new challenge.  Young people are thought of as naive or inexperienced, and won’t have yet developed a strong work ethic.  The assumption in this case is equally flawed.  

The Torah has clearly taught us that every person is a unique blend of Divine ingredients.  When we remember someone, we are to remember their personhood, their being — numbers should be reserved for math and science.  

In fact, even numbers speak of their own spirituality.  As Einstein once said: “When the math works, God is speaking.”  I think he was old when he said that.

And So This is Purim!

And So This is Purim!

(Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s: “And So This is Christmas”…because it’s… Purim!)

And so this is Purim,

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one’s just begun.

Let’s wear our Zoom filters

And don our Zoom masks

Let’s drink a L’chaim

And swig from our flasks

But party in private

No large Shushan feast

We increase our ‘happy’

But the parties decrease

So a very merry Purim

Take a moment to notice

We came close to disaster

But they couldn’t quite smote us.

(okay, not proud of that last rhyme but…it’s Purim so I can take rhyming liberties).

Today is Purim and we’re supposed to switch things up, listen to the Megillah, boo at Haman, and remember that being a Jew in exile means standing on the shifting sands of politics.  This year, of all years, we don’t need Purim to teach us about how crazy the world can get.  This year, we look for deeper messages of the holiday that can speak to us right now.

This morning, on my online weekly coffee discussion, we looked at the Megillah, and its message of privilege.  This year I saw it clearly, while every other year it sat quietly in the text waiting for its moment.

The Megillah begins with a portrait of complete privilege: the king is hosting endless feasting and debauchery for his invited privileged guests.  The description is surprising in its excess and the midrashim add details that complete the picture of privilege.  Within this setting, Queen Vashti is told to appear.  At this point, the story will unfold as an ongoing introduction of decreasing privilege.  The queen, who has little choice, refuses, and is ‘gotten rid of’.  The advisors have told the king that if his ultimate power (privilege) is challenged, then all wives will challenge their husbands — those of lesser power (privilege) will begin to question their standings, and challenge the rung above them. Esther is chosen as queen , and will gain privilege, but only as long as she hides who she is, Mordecai has told her she must hide her identity because he knows that knowledge of her people will rob her of any power she might attain.  Esther can blend, she can pass, she lives the life of the imposter.

The stand-off between Haman and Mordecai plays out the same way.  In fact, every detail from that moment onward speaks of a switching of privilege — the doors that open, the safety that privilege provides, and the redefinition of the society when it is challenged.

In the final moments of the narrative, the Jewish people (previously on the bottom rung of the ladder, facing a genocide) are allowed to arm themselves, and deliver a pre-emptive strike against those who had already armed against them.  It is the eleventh hour reversal.

Up to this moment in the Megillah, Esther and Mordecai tell us of the events of their time, but they have not yet weighed in on what we should do because of it.  Only in the last verses of the Megillah do they tell us to read their story every year, make it a day of joyous festivities and send presents to the poor.  In other words, hear their cautionary tale, remember it is a repeating story of hatred and privilege, combat the sadness of that fact with the expression of joy, and fight the reality of privilege by reaching out to anyone in need.  Try to equalize our society by sharing what is ours, and creating a bond across the strata of power.

I’m not sure that even Esther and Mordecai could have known how relevant their message has become. This year I read the Megillah with joy, and I add a measure of gratitude.

Happy Purim and shabbat shalom!

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Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Parshat Terumah: The Art of the Gift

Gift giving is an art.  By the time the gift has been selected, acquired, wrapped for presentation and delivered, many decisions have already been made.  The first question that arises when thinking of giving a gift is whether I am giving them something I want them to have or something they want to have.  Big ticket simcha gift giving has taken a cultural turn and answered this question for us.  People register for the gifts they want or need.  I can now select an item from their registry that fits my budget and our relationship.  But it isn’t always that simple.  What if I want to gift a newlywed couple something meaningfully Jewish but the gift registry doesn’t include Judaica?  What if I appreciate the artistic moments in my life, and want to gift them a subscription to a museum or theatre, but that’s not on their list?  Once someone has created a registry, do I still have the freedom to gift both the item and the implied wish I am expressing with that item?

When my children were little, both my husband and I wanted to have them begin to understand the messaging of gift-giving.  When one of us had a birthday, the other one would take the kids to a store in the mall that had a wall of gifts for $5 and under.  The kids were told they could choose one thing from the wall as their gift.  Some of our kids chose quickly (whatever was at eye level), while others stood and agonized for far too long about what to get.  They were caught on trying to decide if it was something they thought was beautiful or something they thought the receiver would think is beautiful.  Personally, I received a lot of sticker earrings and way too many baseball caps in tiny sizes. Teaching what a gift means is a very nuanced affair.

I can gift my time, which for many of us is far more valuable than our gift budget.  I can gift my talents, my vision, my expertise…the list goes on.  

It’s interesting that in our society we don’t gift someone the things we already own — we need to buy something new.  Anything we own is seen as already used, second hand, lesser than new and store bought.  Ironically, the idea of a gift is the opposite.  I want to give you something I know is useful or enjoyable because I have used and enjoyed it.  I am gifting you the experience of the thing, I have removed any doubt.  I gift you the book I loved, the art I find meaningful, but our modern sensibilities will conclude that it’s used — I should buy you the same thing I have, but gift you the new one.  The new book has the benefit of the unbroken spine and the new crispy pages, but the loss of opening the book and having it fall open to my favourite page that I read a thousand times — the one I want you to see first.  When I buy you the new one, I remove my presence from the object, and now I have given you…a book.

This is the subtlety of gift giving in this week’s Torah portion, parashat Terumah.  God is teaching Israel how to create a Tabernacle, holy space.  The very first words are that Israel should contribute the things their hearts tell them to give.  It is a list of precious things they already own.  They are not to barter with each other or ‘trade up’.  Their eyes are on their possessions, not their neighbours’.  It’s hard to part with beautiful things I own and value, but I am not being asked to part with them, I am being taught to invest them into building a place of relationships I fully intend to enjoy.  Holy space is open to everyone, and when an Israelite enters the Tabernacle, they will see the things they contributed woven together with everything everyone else brought, and know it was hard for everyone to give these things up and we built it together.

The Hebrew word terumah does not mean donation, it literally means ‘to separate and raise it’.  I am not donating something to the Tabernacle, I am taking it from what I already own, and therefore a piece of me moves into the actual physical space — even when I’m not there, I’m there.  In fact, once introducing this concept to us, God states that by building this Tabernacle “I can dwell inside them” — even when they think I’m not there, I’m there.  

Today, when people are marrying and setting up a new home, or growing their family and in need of specific items, it is extremely helpful to have a registry outlining for us what would be most helpful for them.  Maybe with terumah in mind, that gift could be accompanied by something chosen by our hearts that moves from holy space to holy space, from our home to theirs.

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